By his own account, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, M.D., is discouraging Kentuckians from getting vaccinated against the coronavirus. He wrote in his July 9 newsletter:
“Natural immunity occurs when your body protects itself from a disease. Vaccine immunity occurs when you inject a certain disease into the body to produce immunity from it. When you combine both natural immunity and vaccine immunity it’s estimated that 80-85 percent of U.S. adults have COVID-19 immunity. As a result, we’ve likely already reached herd immunity, making the spread of this disease from one person to another unlikely.”
That’s wrong in several ways, but the bottom line is that plenty of COVID-19 spread is going on, and it’s increasing, even as vaccinations in Kentucky are decreasing. So one of our U.S. senators — in sharp contrast to the other when it comes to this topic — is dabbling in dangerous foolishness.
In the former rational world, that might have made him vulnerable, even to a Republican primary challenge next year. But the GOP (in which I was registered for decades before becoming an independent) has become a safe harbor for dangerous foolishness, such as sustaining its defeated president’s lies about the last election and the insurrection he spawned, and playing to the anti-vaccine crowd. So, barring a super-rich independent coming out of nowhere, any meaningful challenge to Dr. Paul must come from Democrats.
Their prospects aren’t good, in a state that hasn’t voted Democratic in a federal race since 1996.
This month, two Louisville Democrats announced. One was a surprise, coming largely from out of nowhere: Ruth Gao, who has a Ph.D. in educational leadership, holds local party posts and calls herself “an average citizen.” The other was fully expected: former state Rep. Charles Booker, who nearly won the nomination to face Sen. Mitch McConnell last year.
Booker is a compelling and inspiring candidate, has a following, has a book coming out, has a national fundraising base, and could connect with some rural voters through his “Holler to the ‘Hood” routine. But he is well to the left of most Democrats in Kentucky, where Democrats aren’t even a majority any more. Just how he plans to beat Rand Paul is unclear; he didn’t respond to an interview request.
Booker and other progressives have said Kentucky Democrats’ strategy of running moderates for the Senate has failed eight times in a row. However, Paul has become so eccentric (the latest examples being his racially tinged attacks on Booker, an African American) that a moderate Democrat could pick up a significant number of Republican votes. But what Democrat would that be?
The last one to run against Paul, in 2016, was Jim Gray, then mayor of Lexington, who lost by 15 points in Donald Trump’s Kentucky landslide. Now he is transportation secretary for Gov. Andy Beshear, has money that could jump-start a campaign, and is being mentioned as a possible Senate candidate.
So is another Beshear lieutenant, Rocky Adkins, who carries the title “senior adviser” but is in effect the governor’s secretary for rural outreach. He was the most conservative of Beshear’s opponents in the 2019 gubernatorial primary; that and his Eastern Kentucky background could make him our version of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, an analogy that could be very useful.
However, Adkins, 61, may have other options, such as running for Congress when Republican 5th District Rep. Hal Rogers, 83, leaves the stage; or replacing Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman as Beshear’s running mate. (Under a new law, Beshear and his Republican opponent won’t have to name running mates until after the primary, and the outcome of the GOP race could prompt a strategic change.)
The big question mark is Beshear, who has indicated that he won’t take sides in the Senate primary. But if either Adkins or Gray got in, they would carry the imprimatur of his administration, and that could alienate progressives who think Booker has earned a shot at Paul. Beshear needs to keep them loyal and active for a tough race in 2023.
At the same time, Beshear may also think that it would not be in his interests to run for re-election immediately after a Senate race that right now shapes up as a defeat for a progressive Democrat — who, for many swing voters, is likely to confirm that the Democratic Party has gone too liberal for them. The party has already lost a lot of those voters; Beshear got some of them back, and would like to keep them. They may be essential to his re-election.
Farewell to state Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, who died July 6. He had a quick wit and could “disagree without being disagreeable,” as Bill Bryant said on KET’s “Comment on Kentucky.” He also regarded journalists as fellow public servants. An example to remember.